My uncle Herbert Haberberg was a consummate storyteller. Some of his stories seemed larger than life. But given the life he led, I suspect that his very best stories were the ones he could never tell and took as secrets to his grave when he was buried this week, just outside London.
Herbert, the widower of my mother’s sister, Millicent, died on March 6 at the age of 96. It is almost automatic to refer to someone who dies in their nineties as having had “a good, long life.” In my uncle’s case, it was certainly long, eventful and meaningful, but it was not all good.
Born in Germany, Herbert could pinpoint the exact day his childhood ended. It was the day after his 14th birthday, October 28, 1938. He was sent home from his school and when he arrived he found his mother weeping. His father, Alter, had been arrested. The police had instructed the family to pack some suitcases and prepare to leave their home in the village of Lünen-Brambauer, near Dortmund. Herbert tried to help his mother, Fella, and take care of his six-year-old brother, Manfred.
Policemen later returned, loaded the family with other Jews on trucks and drove them past jeering villagers to the train station. Although reunited with his father, the journey marked the end of life as he had known it. It was a significant event in what would later become known as the Holocaust – the systematic murder of some six million Jews, including Fella and Alter Haberberg and most of their extended families.
The family, originally from Poland, had lived and worked in Germany for years. When a change to the law relating to Polish passports threatened the more than 30,000 Polish Jews in Germany with the loss of citizenship overnight, Germany decided to swiftly expel them. The destitute Jews were dumped near the border in what became known as the Zbaszyn camp; under threat of death in the Third Reich and refused entry by the Poles.
After a harrowing period in the camp, the authorities allowed them to resettle in Poland, but there was no refuge. My uncle and his brother managed to escape to England on a Kindertransport a week before the outbreak of the war. They never saw their parents again.
“It was very traumatic,” Herbert told me with more than a dose of British understatement when we spoke about it, three years ago. I had called to ask him about Polish legislation making it a criminal offense to blame the Poles for crimes committed on their soil during the Holocaust.
While agreeing that the concentration camps were operated by Germans, my uncle noted that the “anti-Jewish” Nazi thinking (he didn’t like the term “antisemitic”) fell on fertile Polish ground. Having spent a couple of miserable years in a Catholic school in Germany, he felt that Europe as a whole and the Catholic Church in particular played a role in creating the climate in which local collaborators were happy to help the Nazis carry out their genocidal plans.
One of his stories was of a chance encounter just after the war with a former teacher who exclaimed, “Ah! You survived! Those were terrible times!”
As my uncle recalled, in response he aimed “a well-aimed kick at the man’s backside.”
In 1944, he volunteered for the British Army’s Jewish Brigade – “I wanted to fight the Germans” – and ended up in Italy. In an interview in 2004 in the AJR Journal, he told the reporter for the Association of Jewish Refugees that in 1947 as the last official member of the Jewish Brigade, he had disbanded the unit. He also served for several months as an interpreter at war crimes trials. He has described having to suppress the desire for revenge even when he came across captive SS soldiers.
Some of Herbert’s tales were published in Britain’s Jewish News last April under the title: “He’s the man who helped Belsen survivors build the new state of Israel.” In an interview marking the 75th anniversary of the concentration camp’s liberation by the British Army, Herbert recalled how a chance meeting led him to volunteering with the Jewish Relief Unit to work with the traumatized survivors of Bergen Belsen. Fluent in German, he quickly picked up Yiddish so that he could communicate with these Jews living in “abysmal conditions.”
Although Britain was still blocking the immigration of Jews (including survivors) to Mandatory Palestine, Herbert used his linguistic skills, powers of persuasion and network of ties to help them travel to pre-state Israel.
More than once, Herbert recalled how as a 22-year-old in his British Army uniform during one of his regular visits to the Belsen survivors, he was stopped by a local German woman who demanded to know: “When are you going to get these sub-humans out of here?”
“I advised her to look in the mirror to see what a sub-human looked like,” he said.
NEITHER HIS daughter, Frances, nor his son, Adrian, recall their father talking about this period of his life when they were growing up. Perhaps, although by then a successful British metal merchant and a family man, he was still too traumatized. Herbert discovered the fate of his parents only decades later: They were killed at the Debica camp in 1941.
It was Frances who years ago asked me to help reconstruct the family tree with the assistance of relatives in Israel for a project her daughter was doing. This project was possibly the catalyst for Herbert’s later efforts telling his story to commemorate the Holocaust and preserve history.
I contacted the late Motti Kirschenbaum, an Israel Prize-winning media personality. Motti was Herbert’s first cousin with disconcertingly similar expressions and gestures although the two rarely met. His mother drew up a list of names, a chilling testimony of what befell the Jews in the last century. At the head of the family tree were the grandparents Hava and Ya’acov Haberberg, who immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1937.
They had eight children. Six perished in the Holocaust, along with most of their offspring. Only the two who had immigrated and remained in the Yishuv survived: Batsheva (the mother of Motti and Ruti) and Elimelech, who had two children who both died during the War of Independence. Malka was accidentally shot and Doveleh Haberberg fell in battle at the Castel in 1948 at the age of 16 and a half. Doveleh’s burial site was only discovered in 2010, and my mother, son and I represented Herbert at the official military funeral – another hero, in a related story.
Though he never lived in Israel himself, Herbert was a proud Jew and Zionist. It was through the typical generosity of Uncle Herbert and Aunt Mil (who died in 2005) that I was able to first visit the country in 1976 and they were both hugely supportive after my aliyah.
Herbert and Mil traveled widely both for work – particularly behind what was then known as the Iron Curtain – and for pleasure, usually to warmer climes, as Adrian recalled, in the Zoom shiva. Since Herbert never flew, trips involved traveling by boat, train and car. Both my uncle and aunt were travelers rather than tourists – always meeting interesting people and returning with a good tale to tell.
Herbert is survived by his son and daughter, four granddaughters and one great-granddaughter. My aunt and uncle’s youngest child, a daughter, tragically died when just six years old.
Although he attended an Orthodox synagogue, Herbert had an understandably complicated relationship with God. Still, the rabbi from Barnet Synagogue, where he was a stalwart member, noted at the funeral (seen on Zoom) that Herbert on his deathbed had reacted to the words of the final Shema prayer.
Herbert’s death marks the end of an era for the family. And also in Jewish history. I am proud as his niece to help preserve his memory, legacy, history and stories. Yehi zichro baruch.